Plato as a Theorist of Legitimacy

In: The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition
Benjamin M. Studebaker Valparaiso, IN USA

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Scholars of political thought often view Plato as a ‘political moralist’, or a ‘utopian’ partly due to the Republic’s emphasis on ‘justice’. But in the Republic, Plato offers a distinctive theory of legitimacy, one that grounds legitimacy on an interdependent relationship between justice and moderation. Justice requires that the principle of specialisation be respected, while moderation requires that citizens agree about who should rule. But citizens will only agree if their ‘necessary’ desires are satisfied. Conversely, the ‘necessary’ desires can only be satisfied when the principle of specialisation is maintained. In this way, justice requires moderation, and moderation requires justice, and both are necessary for legitimacy. Plato’s theory of legitimacy is positioned in relation to existing accounts, especially those of John Rawls and Bernard Williams. It is shown that Plato’s theory is a genuine theory of legitimacy, not a theory of acquiescence. In the concluding section, Rawls’ theory is subjected to a critique based on Plato’s theory.


Scholars of political thought often view Plato as a ‘political moralist’, or a ‘utopian’ partly due to the Republic’s emphasis on ‘justice’. But in the Republic, Plato offers a distinctive theory of legitimacy, one that grounds legitimacy on an interdependent relationship between justice and moderation. Justice requires that the principle of specialisation be respected, while moderation requires that citizens agree about who should rule. But citizens will only agree if their ‘necessary’ desires are satisfied. Conversely, the ‘necessary’ desires can only be satisfied when the principle of specialisation is maintained. In this way, justice requires moderation, and moderation requires justice, and both are necessary for legitimacy. Plato’s theory of legitimacy is positioned in relation to existing accounts, especially those of John Rawls and Bernard Williams. It is shown that Plato’s theory is a genuine theory of legitimacy, not a theory of acquiescence. In the concluding section, Rawls’ theory is subjected to a critique based on Plato’s theory.


Many scholars from an array of disciplines are increasingly worried that liberal democracies are in trouble, that these states face an impending crisis of legitimacy.1 Plato – whose political thought is often regarded as idealised, moralistic, or otherwise utopian – is not generally taken to have distinctive insights on political legitimacy.2

In this paper, I argue that Plato has a theory of legitimacy that has been overlooked by scholars of political thought, and that this theory can be found in the Republic. The paper opens with a discussion of what it means for a theorist to have a theory of legitimacy, drawing heavily on the work of John Rawls and Bernard Williams. Both of these theorists have garnered considerable attention among scholars of legitimacy.3 I argue that Plato has a theory of legitimacy in both the moral, normative, external sense associated with Rawls and in the sociological, descriptive, internal sense associated with Williams. This means that Plato was not just concerned that his city should be endorsed, normatively, but also that it is in fact accepted, descriptively. Crucially, this acceptance is not mere acquiescance – it is not produced by the coercive power it seeks to justify, but is instead secured by recognizing and responding to value diversity, enabling people with diverse values to live together under a common schema.

I will argue that, for Plato, the city is just insofar as citizens should endorse it, and it is moderate insofar as they do in fact accept it. Because, for Plato, the city that should be endorsed is the city that most effectively secures acceptance, the city that should be endorsed and the city that most effectively secures acceptance are the same city.

The argument is structured as follows. Section I lays out what it means to take Plato to have a theory of legitimacy in the first instance. Section II discusses what, precisely, justice and moderation involve, and how they interact in Plato’s theory. Section III argues that when Glaucon objects to the first city in the Republic, Plato has Socrates accede to Glaucon’s demands because it is not possible to legitimate the first city to non-philosophers. It therefore argues that Kallipolis is not an abstract ideal, but an attempt to find the truest possible city that non-philosophers can be persuaded to accept. Section IV argues that the Republic’s cycle of regimes deepens the account of legitimacy by illustrating how the city’s commitment to justice breaks down, and how that in turn undermines moderation.

Section V compares the cycle of regimes to a parallel account in the Phaedrus. My account of Plato’s theory relies on reading the Republic and the Phaedrus together. Plato’s theory of legitimacy leans heavily on a reading of the psychological drives that both dialogues discuss through a tripartite account of psychological motivation.4 While the Phaedrus discusses love rather than politics, the Republic frames the three classes in Kallipolis as ‘lovers’ of ‘money’, ‘honor’, and ‘wisdom’, respectively.5 I therefore draw on the allegory of the chariot from the Phaedrus to deepen the tripartite account given in the Republic, enabling a more precise discussion of the relationships between the different parts of the city.

This all builds up to Section VI, in which the mechanisms for maintaining justice – and therefore moderation, and therefore legitimacy – are laid out in detail. Section VII uses the discussion of noble lies in the Republic to explore why Plato offers a theory of legitimacy rather than a theory of acquiescence. The paper concludes with Section VIII, in which Plato’s theory of legitimacy is used to critique liberal theories of legitimacy, focusing specifically on the ways Plato might respond to Rawls.

1 What Is a Theory of Legitimacy?

For John Rawls, we can have some measure of stability – a “modus vivendi” – without achieving legitimacy.6 On this account, legitimacy requires that we have stability for the right reasons. Rawls wants citizens to ‘endorse’ the ‘constitutional essentials’ in light of their ‘common human reason,’ in light of their capacities as reasonable and rational people. These citizens are meant to use these capacities to settle on an ‘overlapping consensus’ – a consensus which has a ‘moral focus’ and ‘moral grounds,’ and which has ‘stability’ in the sense that even if the distribution of power changes in society and some citizens have the opportunity to deviate from the consensus and alter the constitutional essentials they will nonetheless decline to do so.

Williams rejects what he calls ‘political moralism’, or views that subordinate politics to morality.7 Williams prefers to frame legitimacy as a distinctly political question, taking an interest not in whether a political order is morally good but in whether it is ‘acceptable’ to its subjects.8 As Hall recently put Williams’ point: ‘the conditions of legitimacy do not, in the first place, lie in the securing/respect of various moral principles, but in the opinion of the citizens over whom political power is exercised. Legitimacy is not achieved by enacting or respecting a set of external moral principles but is conferred by subjects.’9

This helpfully divides accounts of legitimacy into two principal categories. ‘External’ accounts – like Rawls’ – give the conditions under which subjects of the state normatively should endorse the political system. ‘Internal’ accounts of legitimacy – like Williams’ – give the conditions under which subjects of the state do in fact accept the political system.

This acceptance is not mere acquiescence. Even on Williams’ account, the state must offer a justification for its acts for these acts to be potentially legitimate. Williams says that a justification ‘does not count if the acceptance itself is produced by the coercive power which is supposedly being justified.’10 This means that the state cannot legitimately force subjects to accept it by constituting the subjects in such a way that they cannot help but accept the justification. It must offer justifications to subjects that appeal to the values the subjects themselves have without using its power to determine the subjects’ values ex ante. Williams calls this the ‘Critical Theory Principle’ and he acknowledges that there will be disagreement about what makes the acceptance of a justification a product of coercive power. Ultimately, Williams leaves it to the subjects themselves to decide where the line is. If Williams used an external principle to identify where the line is, this would cut against his internal emphasis.

Existing theories of legitimacy therefore explain either why subjects should endorse the political system (understood in some way) or why they do in fact accept it.11 But crucially, they do not simply explain why citizens acquiesce to it. I acknowledge that Plato does not use the word ‘legitimacy’, or any Greek word that has a meaning that might straightforwardly be translated as ‘legitimacy.’ But a theory of legitimacy need not use the term if it answers one or both of the questions that theories of legitimacy answer while avoiding lapsing into an acquiescance account.

2 Justice and Moderation in the Republic

Readers of the Republic will readily identify Plato’s definition of justice: ‘justice is doing one’s own work and not meddling with what isn’t one’s own.’12 Justice therefore requires that the principle of specialisation be respected. This principle is used both in reference to the soul and the city. There is a tripartite division between ‘iron and bronze’, ‘silver’, and ‘gold’ drives, or the loves of desire, honor, and wisdom, respectively.13 Although each citizen contains within them all the drives, one drive is dominant, leading to the division of the city into classes of producers (driven by ‘iron and bronze’ desires), auxiliaries (driven by ‘silver’ honor), and guardians (driven by ‘gold’ wisdom). For Plato, a city is just when its citizens align their dominant drive with the needs of the city, performing the role appropriate to the class associated with their drive. The three classes have virtues that are connected with their ability to do this. The producers have the virtue of ‘self-control,’ to prevent them from following their desires too far. The auxiliaries have ‘courage,’ to enable them to honorably defend the city. The guardians have ‘wisdom,’ they have knowledge concerning ‘the maintenance of good relations, both internally and with other cities’.14 Only the guardians are driven principally by the pursuit of their class-specific virtue. The other classes need the virtue associated with their class to appropriately align their drive with the good of the city.

But Plato identifies another virtue that is not found solely in one drive or one class, but in the relationship between these elements within the soul and within the city as a whole. Plato terms this virtue ‘moderation’, or ‘harmony’. Unlike the other virtues, ‘each of which resides in one part,’ ‘moderation spreads throughout the whole. It makes the weakest, the strongest, and those in between … all sing the same song together. And this unanimity, this agreement between the naturally worse and the naturally better as to which of the two is to rule … is rightly called moderation.’15

Since justice involves each performing their role, and moderation concerns agreement about the allocation of roles, moderation is necessary for justice. Justice is the ‘external’ criterion of legitimacy for Plato, and involves a correct allocation of roles. But moderation requires agreement. This suggests an ‘internal’ criterion of legitimacy, since it requires not merely that citizens should endorse the allocation of roles, but that they do in fact accept it. The citizens do not merely face a moral imperative to accept the city; they do, in fact, ‘sing the same song.’ Since justice requires moderation, on Plato’s account, an external criterion for legitimacy requires an internal criterion as a prerequisite. At the same time, to maintain the agreement among the citizens about who leads, each class must perform their own role with some degree of success. In this way, moderation in turn depends on justice.

To show that this really is a theory of legitimacy, I will take a close look at two key moves in the Republic. First, I will offer a novel interpretation of the discussion of the first city, suggesting that Plato has Socrates propose Kallipolis because he cannot convince Glaucon to endorse the first city. Plato moves on from the first city even though the first city is the ‘true’ city because the ideal city will not in fact be accepted by non-philosophers. In this way, the discussion of the first city shows not only that Plato is concerned with the legitimacy of his city, but that he will shelve a city he considers ‘true’ if that city cannot generate moderation.

Second, I will argue that the cycle of regimes shows how a loss of justice leads to a loss of moderation. This loss of moderation causes the city to fall and to be replaced by a sequence of cities that are even less just, and therefore even less moderate, and therefore even more certain to fall. I will supplement the discussions of these elements of the Republic with parallel accounts from the Phaedrus.

3 The Failure to Legitimate the First City

The question of legitimacy arises in the Republic when Glaucon objects to Plato’s first city. In Book II of the Republic, Plato begins with a city that primarily meets its citizens’ survival needs. To achieve this, citizens exchange such goods as are necessary for survival, like ‘bread, wine, clothes, and shoes’, by means of ‘exchange’ in a ‘marketplace’.16 This system of trade is made possible by a common ‘currency’ and a division of labor among ‘craftsmen’, ‘merchants’, and ‘wage-earners’.17 This division of labor illustrates that the principle of specialisation is already present even at this stage. Glaucon refuses to accept this city. He complains that ‘you make your people feast without any delicacies’, and calls the diet of ‘vegetables’, ‘figs’, ‘beans’ and ‘acorns’ fit for ‘pigs’.18

Glaucon demands luxuries. To acquire this ‘multitude of things that go beyond what is necessary for a city’ the city will need far greater territory and resources.19 When Socrates points out that ‘the next step will be war’ to continue the ‘endless acquisition of money’ among citizens who have ‘overstepped the limit of their necessities’, Glaucon is undeterred, replying that this is ‘completely inevitable’.20 Socrates reluctantly gives way, providing an account of Kallipolis, the ‘beautiful city’.

Modern Plato scholarship tends to discuss Plato’s first city in two ways. Some accounts treat the first city as a mere stepping-stone towards the later discussion of Kallipolis.21 Schofield, for instance, suggests that Plato conceived of the first city as a merely ‘economic city’ which ‘specifies … no more than a highly abstract and artificial model of one dimension of human social activity’: particularly, the pursuit of ‘necessary desires’.22 On this interpretation, Plato says a desire is ‘necessary’ if it ‘leads to’ some ‘good,’ the most basic of which is survival.23 The ‘desire for bread’ is archetypical. Desire is ‘unnecessary’ when it is ‘harmful both to the body and to the reason and moderation of the soul,’ such as the desires for ‘sex’ and ‘profit’ through ‘money-making’.24 The first city satisfies necessary desires while the luxurious city satisfies unnecessary desires, too. In Kallipolis, however, the class of producers must moderate their desires to remain committed to the city ruled by philosophers.25 In this way, Kallipolis reigns in the excesses of luxurious cities while drawing on the benefits of greater territory and resources than the first city.

Plato, on this view, is less defending the first city than using it as a benchmark against which to evaluate subsequent regimes. McDavid warns against any ‘overestimation of the virtue of the City of Pigs’ by drawing attention to Annas’ argument that the citizens are ‘motivated in their association entirely by self-interest’ in both the first city and in the luxurious city.26 The first city, on this interpretation, is not what Plato normatively prefers.

Others frame Plato as defending the first city, using Kallipolis to illustrate to Glaucon the error of his luxurious ways.27 Rowe, for instance, argues that the first city is more unified than the luxurious city. He contrasts ‘the division of the soul into parts’ that ‘conflict’ in Kallipolis with ‘the absence even of potential conflict between the inhabitants of the first city,’ which is ‘host to a collection of different aspects, all contributing harmoniously to the whole’.28 Similarly, De Lara argues that ‘trade specialisation,’ ‘right size,’ and ‘modesty’ in the first city secure the city’s ‘unity’, satisfying necessary desires without conflict.29

I want to argue for a third interpretation. On my view, Plato thinks the first city is theoretically ideal but cannot be legitimated. A middle interpretation is not unprecedented. McKeen suggests that the first city, though a ‘unified community,’ is a society whose ‘unity depends on good fortune,’ rendering it ‘highly contingent, and thus highly unstable’.30 Similarly, Barney argues: ‘the First City is in itself a strictly impossible city, and impossible for reasons [arising from] the moral psychology of the Republic itself.’31

But while Barney focuses on the moral psychology of Republic alone, I will supplement my interpretation by drawing on the Phaedrus, in which Plato again envisions the soul as tripartite and suggests different specialised roles for its parts through the allegory of the chariot. Plato’s chariot includes a dark horse, a light horse, and a charioteer. The charioteer aims to access the heavens, where truth is found. The light horse is a ‘lover of honor’ who ‘needs no whip’ and ‘is guided by verbal commands alone’.32 The dark horse often fails to heed even the whip – it is ‘companion to wild boasts and indecency’ and is fixated on ‘the pleasures of sex’.33 The light horse reproaches the dark horse with ‘shame,’ while the charioteer reproaches it with ‘reason’.34

These reproaches only work, however, once the dark horse has been intimidated with persistent physical discipline.35 Even then, the dark horse only complies intermittently. The gods have no trouble guiding their chariots through the heavens, but the souls of mortals struggle to stay focused on the task, always at risk of being led astray by the dark horse. Plato goes on:

As for the other souls, one that follows a god most closely, making itself most like that god, raises the head of its charioteer up to the place outside and is carried around in the circular motion with the others. Although distracted by the horses, this soul does have a view of Reality, just barely. Another soul rises at one time and falls at another, and because its horses pull it violently in different directions, it sees some real things and misses others. The remaining souls … all leave without having seen reality, uninitiated, and when they have gone they will depend on what they think is nourishment – their own opinions.36

True reality, for Plato, exists at the level of Form. When the soul travels ‘with god,’ it disregards ‘the things we now call real’ and lifts up its head ‘to what is truly real instead’.37 In the analogy, the horses are the means by which we apprehend the truth, but they also obstruct nearly all human souls – with the possible exception of the philosopher’s soul – from grasping it in full. The horses fly the charioteer up to the heavens, but also drag the charioteer back down to earth.

In this way, the horses tell us something critical about Plato’s view of embodied subjectivity. We must take care of the body to engage in philosophic activity, but the desires that come from the body are the very things that interrupt this activity and cause us to mistake bodily goods for the Form of the Good. Plato’s ‘Good’ has ‘Sovereignty’ over all other values.38 It is, for Plato, ‘the unhypothetical first principle of everything’, ‘superior [in] rank and power’ to all that has ‘being’ (i.e., is physical), and is comprehensible only through the faculty of contemplative ‘understanding,’ not mere ‘opinion’.39

In line with this reading of the Phaedrus, I argue that in the Republic, when Plato has Socrates say that the first city is ‘true,’ he is suggesting that it is closer to the Form of the Good than Kallipolis is, but the closer the city is to Form the less accessible it is for non-philosophers. Socrates himself has a well-ordered soul. He does not want or need many of the luxuries that most mortals demand, and so Plato cannot have it be the case that Socrates already knows that the first city will not in fact be accepted. So, Plato has Glaucon demand the luxuries Socrates himself would not demand. This forces Socrates – reluctantly, and with much protest – to realize that the first city will not be accepted. This enables Plato to have Socrates discuss a city Glaucon might in fact accept, without besmirching Socrates’ good name.

Plato knows that Socrates must legitimate the city to Glaucon and to those citizens who fall away from Form because, in the real world, the philosophers cannot pursue Form without some level of cooperation from classes of non-philosophers. Plato is acutely aware of Socrates’ fate. In the wrong kind of city, philosophy will not flourish. This leads Plato to consider not just what kind of city aligns with Form but also what kind of city can produce a stable environment where philosophers can thrive alongside people who do not see intrinsic value in the philosophic craft. Like the horses who support the charioteer despite not sharing the charioteer’s psychological drive for wisdom, Plato needs his auxiliaries and producers to support the philosophers despite not sharing the philosophers’ orientation toward Form. This means they must be persuaded to endorse the city without understanding its true purpose.

4 The Fall of Philosophy through the Cycle of Regimes

For Plato, no class or part of the soul can thrive without the support of the others. The charioteer can only fly to the heavens if he can secure the cooperation of the horses and the philosophers can only run the city with the aid of the auxiliaries and the producers. But just as the horses will only fly to the heavens if they are given time to graze on the ground, the auxiliaries and producers will only cooperate if the city acknowledges their values and makes strategic concessions to them. The purpose of Kallipolis is the pursuit of truth by the philosophers. But the other classes’ drives must be met instrumentally, to facilitate this pursuit, in the same way that for Plato the body is cared for to enable philosophical contemplation.

Some of Plato’s critics – including Bernard Williams himself – feel that Plato needs make an effort to ‘satisfy’ the auxiliaries and producers.40 But any attempt to sublimely satisfy these classes would undermine justice. Allowing the auxiliaries and producers to dictate values to the philosophers violates the principle of specialisation, and violations of the principle of specialisation ultimately disrupt moderation.

This is illustrated in the cycle of regimes, the process by which Kallipolis loses its legitimacy. For Plato, Kallipolis is fragile, even with many institutional features designed to help it last. Kallipolis will decay in part because it is a human solution. While the gods easily navigate their chariots through the heavens, as Plato argues in the Phaedrus, mortals do this only with difficulty.41 The creations mortals make – which are at best imitations of Form – face the same challenges mortals themselves face. As Socrates says in the Republic, although it is ‘hard’ for a city as well-constructed as Kallipolis to change, ‘everything that comes into being must decay’.42

The guardians, Plato’s Republic continues, maintain the city by ensuring that every type of soul is granted the appropriate role. But the knowledge of the guardians is not perfect, since everything mortal is corrupted by mutable matter. So, the guardians make mistakes about role-allocation, allocating silver or even bronze types roles as fellow guardians, leading to an increasingly ignorant guardian class that in turn increasingly misallocates roles. The first mistake pertains to the system of birthing: when ‘rulers, through ignorance of [the geometrical calculation of] births, join brides and grooms at the wrong time, the children will be neither good natured nor fortunate,’ and those who are suited for roles of producer or auxiliaries become guardians.43 The second mistake involves a deterioration of the education process, as the new guardian class ‘will have less consideration for music and poetry than they ought’.44 Plato lays out the impact of the older guardians’ mistakes for new generations of guardians, and the city as a whole:

Hence, rulers chosen from among them won’t be able to guard well the testing of the golden, silver, bronze and iron [types] … The intermixing of iron with silver and bronze with gold that results will engender lack of likeness and unharmonious inequality, and these always breed war and hostility wherever they arise. Civil war, we declare, is always and everywhere ‘of this lineage.’45

While modern readers will rightly take issue with the idea that a geometrical calculation of births can be used to determine the nature of children’s souls, Plato is making a larger, more defensible point. It is so difficult to properly produce guardians that even the best guardians cannot manage to perfectly reproduce their own virtues in subsequent generations. This means it is impossible to maintain the principle of specialisation. Mortality forces the guardians to reproduce themselves, and reproduction pushes the guardians beyond their ability to reliably understand the good.

The limits of the guardians’ knowledge eventually degrade the ability of the guardian class to maintain the principle of specialisation. It makes a ‘compromise’ with the ‘iron and bronze types.’ This compromise introduces private property and slavery. The need to maintain the slave system displaces the city’s orientation toward philosophy and the Good. Plato writes:

They distribute the land and houses as private property, enslave and hold as serfs and servants those whom they previously guarded as free friends and providers of upkeep, and occupy themselves with war and with guarding against those whom they’ve enslaved.46

For a time, the city values the warrior qualities necessary to maintain the slave system. Eventually, these warriors come to value money-making itself, leading them to purchase their fellow citizens’ property, turning the dispossessed into ‘drones,’ who are divided into ‘stingless drones’ or ‘beggars’ and drones ‘with stings’ who become ‘evildoers’.47 As drones multiply, rulers become ‘fond of luxury,’ ‘incapable of effort,’ and ‘too soft to stand up to pleasures or pains’.48

Eventually, drones with stings overcome the increasingly useless ruling class, establishing a democracy. These drones, lacking the training of earlier philosopher-rulers, become ruled by their unnecessary desires and, lacking the ability to distinguish their unnecessary desires from the necessary, resist attempts to reign in unnecessary desires.49 The class conflict that drove the oligarchy to become a democracy reasserts with fresh intensity, with the rich becoming proponents of oligarchy to protect themselves from the drones, and the drones supporting tyranny to protect themselves from the rich.50

In this account, as the guardians become worse at maintaining justice, they become less and less able to secure moderation. In an attempt to salvage the city’s legitimacy, they make a compromise that allows the producers to gradually take over. But these concessions make the city less just, and that further corrodes moderation, producing a sequence of increasingly unstable cities.

5 The Fall of Philosophy in the Phaedrus

The cycle of regimes is strikingly similar to the account in the Phaedrus of the dark horse’s triumph over the charioteer. First, a compromise is made with the dark horse: ‘At first the other two resist, angry in their belief that they are being made to do things that are dreadfully wrong. At last, however, when they see no end to their trouble, they are led forward, reluctantly agreeing to do as they have been told.’51

Then the dark horse uses this agreement to press for more. When the charioteer and the light horse fail to continue to make concessions to the dark horse, the dark horse ‘bursts into a torrent of insults as soon as it has caught its breath, accusing its charioteer and yokemate of all sorts of cowardice and unmanliness for abandoning their position and their agreement.’52

The charioteer inflicts terrible physical punishment on the dark horse, but even this only buys the dark horse’s silence temporarily: ‘When they are in bed, the lover’s undisciplined horse has a word to say to the charioteer – that after all its sufferings it is entitled to a little fun.’53 At this stage, Plato suggests that the lovers might choose philosophy and triumph over their dark horses – but only by ‘enslaving the part that brought trouble into the soul’.54 Here, Plato deviates from the similar argument in the Republic, which would suggest that enslaving the dark horse would force the charioteer and the light horse to become preoccupied with maintaining the slavery, to the exclusion of all else. But this may follow from the different cases being considered in the two dialogues – what is possible for two philosophically-inclined souls may be impossible for a city where every kind of soul is present.

Plato nevertheless does go on in the Phaedrus to provide an account of what happens if philosophy fails to triumph. This account more closely mirrors the cycle of regimes:

If, on the other hand, they adopt a lower way of living, with ambition in place of philosophy, then pretty soon when they are careless because they have been drinking or for some other reason, the pair’s undisciplined horses will catch their souls off guard and together bring them to commit that act which ordinary people would take to be the happiest choice of all; and when they have consummated it once, they go on doing this for the rest of their lives, but sparingly, since they have not approved of what they are doing with their whole minds.55

As in the Republic, the decline begins with a move away from philosophy toward the ambition we associate with the auxiliaries. The lack of approval from the ‘whole mind’ suggests further internal conflict, but they nonetheless ‘go on doing this for their whole lives’. Despite the conflict, the dark horse is fated to win again and again. For once the dark horse triumphs, its subsequent victories are made easier by the concessions made to it in the past.

The Phaedrus highlights the legitimation problem of the Republic: if the dark horse must be made to cooperate, and it will only cooperate when the charioteer makes agreements with it or enslaves it outright, how can the city legitimate itself to the producers and auxiliaries without making too many concessions or committing to a policy of slavery?

6 The Necessary and Unnecessary Desires

Insofar as Plato has a solution, it is for the philosophers to maintain the legitimacy of Kallipolis by meeting the producers’ and auxiliaries’ necessary desires without making substantial concessions to their unnecessary ones. The philosophers must use their wisdom to identify the desires that must be tolerated to secure the support not just of the other classes, but of the parts of their own souls that constantly threaten to drag their chariots back down to earth. At the same time, they must also identify the desires whose toleration would endanger their own souls and encourage the other classes to subvert the state. The division between necessary and unnecessary is not simply a division between desires that are tied to survival and those that are not. Instead, Plato frames the ‘necessary desires’ as ‘those we can’t desist from and those whose satisfaction benefits us.’56 Delicacies are explicitly classified as necessary. Plato writes:

Aren’t the following desires necessary: the desire to eat to the point of health and well-being and the desire for bread and delicacies? … The desire for bread is necessary on both counts; it’s beneficial, and unless it’s satisfied, we die. … The desire for delicacies is also necessary to the extent that it’s beneficial to well-being.57

This discussion doesn’t just apply to food. It is decided that they can ‘say the same about the desire for sex and about other desires.’58 Even the ‘thrifty oligarch is ruled by his necessary desires.’59 The thrifty oligarch is no philosopher. The thrifty oligarch holds desire in check ‘by compulsion and fear’ while the ‘true virtue of a single-minded and harmonious soul far escapes him.’60 If even the thrifty oligarch is ruled by the necessary desires, the necessary desires cannot be defined purely in terms of survival. There is some slack in the concept.

This suggests that the philosophers may sometimes classify desires as ‘necessary’ if they contribute to the well-being of citizens. Since Plato does not consider citizens’ well-being in a narrow, individual-oriented way, this allows the philosophers to permit citizens to follow their desires when those desires contribute to the well-being of the city as a whole. This means that not only must the philosophers permit the pursuit of desires that are necessary for the city to survive in the near-term, but they must also permit the pursuit of desires that are necessary for the city’s long-term well-being – that is, desires that are necessary to prevent the city from falling into the cycle of regimes, and are therefore needed to maintain the legitimacy of Kallipolis. In this way, the desires that are necessary to successfully legitimate Kallipolis are necessary desires, and must be tolerated, while the desires that would enable the cycle of regimes to unfold are unnecessary, and must be resisted. This is further underlined by the claim that the unnecessary desires are those that ‘most people can get rid of’ when these people are restrained and educated.61 The implication is that those desires that most people cannot get rid of have to be tolerated, and most people do not have philosophers’ souls and do not respond to education as well as philosophers do.

Since the cycle of regimes gets going with a compromise with the ‘iron and bronze types,’ the cycle can only begin if the iron and bronze cease to endorse the rule of the gold and silver. This suggests that the guardians must be failing in some way to meet the necessary desires of the producers. The compromise not only creates space for the necessary desires, but begins the process of unshackling the unnecessary desires, leading to further decay. This means that, to prolong the life of Kallipolis, the philosophers must carefully distinguish between the necessary desires that must be satisfied and the unnecessary desires that must be restrained. For both the tolerance of the former and the restraint of the latter are necessary to delay the onset of the cycle. As difficult as it is to distinguish between the two conceptually, it even harder to make policy that gets the balance right in practice. There is, however, no further discussion of what precisely this balance is, since the philosophers must find it by continuously reinterpreting the shifting context in which Kallipolis finds itself. This is shown when Plato in the Republic likens the political ruler to a ship captain. He writes:

They don’t understand that a true captain must pay attention to the seasons of the year, the sky, the stars, the winds, and all that pertains to his craft.62

The true captain does not always sail the ship in precisely the same way. Instead, the captain carefully observes the context in which the ship finds itself. For this reason, there is no single set of rules about how to sail – sailing is in part about knowing how and when to adapt. Plato’s philosopher-kings therefore are not meant to maintain the city in a rigid way, but to dynamically adapt to shifts in ‘all that pertains’ to their craft, which includes the shifting desires of their citizens. They must tolerate those desires that are necessary to secure legitimacy and resist those that are not, reclassifying particular desires as the political context evolves.

Since it is so difficult to consistently make these distinctions skillfully, and skilled philosophers are so difficult to consistently produce, the philosophers will eventually fail to appropriately distinguish between the necessary and unnecessary desires. When the unnecessary desires are mistakenly permitted or the necessary desires are mistakenly stifled, this leads to injustice and loss of moderation. But by continuing to pursue what they cannot permanently secure, the philosophers can extend the historical moment in which Kallipolis can in fact be accepted and thereby the historical moment in which philosophy is possible. Philosophy therefore depends on maintaining legitimacy, and legitimacy requires both justice and moderation.

7 Noble Lies, Slavery, and Acquiescance

It is very difficult for the philosophers to consistently distinguish between necessary and unnecessary desires. It would be much easier if the citizens could be made to acquiesce to Kallipolis through noble lies. Earlier on, in Book III, Socrates wishes that all three classes – even the rulers – might be persuaded that the entire education process was ‘a sort of dream,’ that in fact during that dream they were being ‘fashioned and nurtured inside the earth,’ and that the earth itself is their ‘mother’.63 Socrates hopes that this will make them believe that they are all brothers, and that they have a duty to defend the land in which they live, because that land is their mother.

Right from the start, it is admitted that this is unlikely to work. Socrates admits that he is ‘hesitant’ to tell the story, that ‘it would certainly take a lot of persuasion to get people to believe it,’ and that he doesn’t ‘even know’ if it could be believed.64 Indeed, he says he doesn’t know where he’ll get the ‘audacity’ to share the story.65

But Socrates goes on telling it. The ‘brothers’ are to be told that the god who made them mixed ‘some gold into those who are adequately equipped to rule,’ ‘silver in those who are auxiliaries,’ and ‘iron and bronze in the farmers and other craftsmen’.66 For the most part, they will give birth to offspring with the same metals, but because they are all siblings, ‘a silver child will occasionally be born from a golden parent, and vice versa, and all the others from each other.’67 Therefore, it is essential that when children are born with different metals from their parents that they are put into the appropriate class. ‘For there is an oracle which says that the city will be ruined if it ever has an iron or a bronze guardian.’68 At the end of the story, Socrates again admits that he ‘can’t see any way to make’ people believe it, but he expresses a hope that it might be possible for future generations to believe it.69

The legitimation of the city is a dangerous process, because it involves making strategic concessions to classes of people who do not understand the purpose of the city and who will, if encouraged too much, turn it from its purpose. For Plato, the philosophical city is good, and there is nothing wrong with telling stories that induce people to acquiesce to something good. If these stories were believed, they would lead people who would otherwise fall away from the good back toward it. For Rawls, legitimacy cannot involve acquiescance, because this involves trampling upon the freedom of individuals to autonomously choose their own comprehensive doctrines. But for Plato, when the citizens choose their own values, they fail to develop the virtues, the principle of specialisation is not followed, and the agreement about who is to lead breaks down.

For Plato, the problem with acquiescance is not that it is wrong, it is that it cannot be made to work, at least in Plato’s context. The Greeks do not believe this ‘Phoenician story’ and Plato can’t see any way to persuade the people around him that it might be true.70 This forces Plato to develop a theory of legitimacy.

Similarly, in the Phaedrus, Socrates expresses a hope that two philosophically- inclined souls might succeed in enslaving their dark horses. But in the city, slavery is too difficult to maintain. It requires that the city over-value the warrior qualities necessary to maintain the slave system, conceding too much to the auxiliaries. If slavery could produce acquiescance, Plato would not be opposed, but because it cannot be made to work, the producers must be maintained as ‘free friends and providers of upkeep’.71 They must be taught the virtue of self-control precisely because there are limits to Kallipolis’ ability to control their desires. The producers will not in fact accept a city that does not tolerate the desires they cannot get rid of, and so every effort must be made to help the producers establish and maintain self-control, so that the set of desires that are necessary does not become overly large and unwieldy.

8 Plato’s Theory in Contemporary Context

No contemporary state straightforwardly features rule by philosophers. Plato would likely classify most contemporary states as oligarchies, democracies, or tyrannies. If contemporary states are not just, Plato’s theory of legitimacy holds that they will lose moderation, that the agreement about who is to rule will break down. But many contemporary states have persisted as oligarchies, democracies, or tyrannies for long periods of time. Because many unjust states are nonetheless stable, theorists like Rawls treat stability as a prerequisite for justice. On Rawls’ account, only once there is stability can there potentially be stability for the right reasons. Insofar as legitimacy is tied to justice, it becomes a moral standard by which diverse stable political systems might be evaluated.

Rawls does express a hope that his overlapping consensus will be more stable in the long-term. For Rawls, the stability of a modus vivendi depends on a contingent balance of power. But because citizens will endorse the overlapping consensus on the basis of their own conceptions of the good, they will continue endorsing it regardless of changes in the distribution of power within society. If this is true, a political system based on an overlapping consensus will be more stable than one based on a modus vivendi. Rawls puts it this way:

The test for this is whether the consensus is stable with respect to changes in the distribution of power among views. This feature of stability highlights a basic contrast between an overlapping consensus and a modus vivendi, the stability of which does depend on that distribution.72

Even Rawls thinks the just city will be more stable than the unjust city. In this sense, we could take Rawls and Plato to be agreeing that the just city is the one that is most able to secure acceptance in the long-term. But Rawls and Plato have very different views about justice.

For Plato, justice is about ensuring the right people rule rather than the wrong people. The rulers maintain justice by protecting moderation. They do this by ensuring the classes acquire their class-specific virtues, and this in turn is ensured by carefully maintaining – and, when necessary, updating – the distinction between necessary and unnecessary desires. But, for Rawls, distributive justice is handled by following the principles the citizens themselves choose ‘when fairly represented as free and equal.’73

For Plato, most of the citizens are not intrinsically motivated to pursue the good. But Rawlsian citizens have the two moral powers.74 They are reasonable – they have a sense of justice insofar as they are able to abide by fair terms of cooperation, even at the expense of their own interests, provided others are willing to do so. They are also rational – they have the capacity to pursue and revise their own conceptions of the good. For Rawls, the two moral powers are developed only when citizens have access to a set of primary goods. These include ‘basic right and liberties’, ‘freedom of movement and free choice of occupation against a background of diverse opportunities’, ‘powers and prerogatives of offices and positions of authority and responsibility’, ‘income and wealth, understood as all-purpose means’, and ‘the social bases of self-respect’.75

A Rawlsian might argue that in Plato’s time, there was limited access to the primary goods, and therefore only a few citizens were able to develop the two moral powers. Today, as access to the primary goods increases, more citizens are able to develop the two moral powers, and therefore a revision of Plato’s conception of justice is in order. But I doubt Plato would buy this. I suspect Plato would argue that contemporary states are oligarchic, democratic, or tyrannical, that they have confused the pursuit of ‘income and wealth, understood as all-purpose means,’ with the good, and that the values citizens develop autonomously, without the benefit of the intensive education program laid out in the Republic, are mere doxa.

But if Plato takes this position, he must explain why many modern states enjoy relatively high levels of stability. I suspect he would argue that theorists like Rawls are telling ignoble lies to induce citizens to acquiesce to unjust states. The Phoenician story will not be believed in Plato’s own context, but Plato leaves room for the possibility that other kinds of lies might be believed, or that in other contexts it might be easier to get citizens to believe lies.

For Plato, Rawls is lying in two senses. He leads citizens to believe they have moral capacities they do not have. Citizens can only know the good through a very precise, sophisticated kind of education to which few – if any – modern citizens have access. For Plato, many of the citizens who receive even this kind of education will still fail to meaningfully approach the good, because they have the wrong kind of soul. Second, Rawls conflates money-loving states with wisdom-loving states, by suggesting that the state that pursues the primary goods most effectively is the state that best develops the two moral powers. But for Plato, most citizens lack the natural capacity to develop these moral powers and/or lack access to the specific kind of education that develops these powers. Rawls’ primary goods in no way guarantee that citizens will be able to develop them.

Rawls’ lies are, at present, much more effective than the Phoenician story was at securing acquiescence. This may be because contemporary states are more effective at disseminating lies, or it may be because Rawls’ lies are in themselves more persuasive. Perhaps it’s both – perhaps contemporary states are more effective at disseminating lies, and Rawls’ lies are more persuasive. Rawls’ lies may be more persuasive in part because Rawls himself believes his lies to be true. For Plato, a lie is more effective if the rulers who disseminate the lies also believe them.76

In sum, I suspect Plato would argue that it is Rawls who in fact has a theory of acquiescence, because Rawls’ theory contains ignoble lies about how citizens gain the capacity to conceptualize the good. This enables Rawls’ theory to present the good as more immediately accessible by citizens than is in fact the case. This encourages the citizens to go by their own opinions, and it would diminish moderation, if not for the fact that ignoble lies of this kind are widely believed, even by the rulers themselves.

In this way, for Plato, liberal political theory uses ignoble lies – which the liberal political theorists themselves believe – to break the link between justice and moderation. This forces citizens to acquiesce to unjust states, and that enables unjust states to pause the cycle of regimes, allowing oligarchies, democracies, and tyrannies to survive for long periods of time. This extends the historical moment in which money-making and pleasure-seeking can be pursued at philosophy’s expense.


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Kurlantzick 2013; Mair 2013; Gamble 2014; Streeck 2014; Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018; Stanley 2018; Norris and Inglehart 2019; Piketty 2020.


McCoy 1954, 1062; Williams 1999, 255-264; Schofield 2006, 194.


On Rawls’ side, see Rawls 2001; Fabienne 2009; Gaus 2011; Quong 2011; Freeman 2018. On Williams’ side, see Williams 2005; Sleat 2010, 485-503; Bavister-Gould 2013, 593-610; Hall 2015, 466-480; Prinz and Rossi 2017, 348-365; Cozzaglio and Greene 2019, 1016-1036.


English translations make use of Grube and Reeve 1997, 971-1223; Nehamas and Woodruff 1997, 506-556.


Republic 474-75.


Rawls 2001, 192-195.


Williams 2005, 2.


Williams 2005, 4.


Hall 2015, 466-80.


Williams 2005, 6.


Joseph Raz’s theory asks further questions to do with what precisely is being legitimated and what specific forms of obligation legitimacy creates. Raz argues that it is political authority that is being legitimated. See for instance Raz 2007, 1003-1044. Rawls argues that the overlapping consensus on the constitutional essentials is being legitimated, and Williams argues that the political order is being legitimated. For Plato, the city is the thing that needs to be legitimated, and the city is defined by the part of it that does the ruling. When the philosophical city is legitimate, all the classes in the city should endorse and do in fact accept the rule of the philosophers. Rawls and Williams do not explicitly center political obligation in their theories, and therefore I will not ask this of Plato.


Rep. 433a-b.


Rep. 547b.


Rep. 431c-d, 429b-c, 428d.


Rep. 432a.


Rep. 372a, 371c-d.


Rep. 371b, 370d, 371d, 371e.


Rep. 372c, 372d.


Rep. 373b.


Rep. 373d, 373d-e.


See Annas 1981; Schofield 2000, 190-232; McDavid 2019, 571-593.


Schofield 2000, 213.


Rep. 559a.


Rep. 559b-c.


Rep. 389d-e.


McDavid 2019, 78.


See Rowe 2017, 55-71; Lara 2018, 1-22.


Rowe, 2017, 65.


Lara 2018.


McKeen 2004, 70-92.


Barney 2002, 207-227.


Phaedrus 253d.


Phdr. 253e-254b.


Phdr. 256a.


Phdr. 254e.


Phdr. 248a-b: αἱ δὲ ἄλλαι ψυχαί, μὲν ἄριστα θεῷ ἑπομένη καὶ εἰκασμένη ὑπερῆρεν εἰς τὸν ἔξω τόπον τὴν τοῦ ἡνιόχου κεφαλήν, καὶ συμπεριηνέχθη τὴν περιφοράν, θορυβουμένη ὑπὸ τῶν ἵππων καὶ μόγις καθορῶσα τὰ ὄντα: δὲ τοτὲ μὲν ἦρεν, τοτὲ δ᾽ ἔδυ, βιαζομένων δὲ τῶν ἵππων τὰ μὲν εἶδεν, τὰ δ᾽ οὔ. αἱ δὲ δὴ ἄλλαι γλιχόμεναι μὲν ἅπασαι τοῦ ἄνω ἕπονται, ἀδυνατοῦσαι δέ, ὑποβρύχιαι συμπεριφέρονται, πατοῦσαι ἀλλήλας καὶ ἐπιβάλλουσαι, ἑτέρα πρὸ τῆς ἑτέρας πειρωμένη γενέσθαι. θόρυβος οὖν καὶ ἅμιλλα καὶ ἱδρὼς ἔσχατος γίγνεται, οὗ δὴ κακίᾳ ἡνιόχων πολλαὶ μὲν χωλεύονται, πολλαὶ δὲ πολλὰ πτερὰ θραύονται: πᾶσαι δὲ πολὺν ἔχουσαι πόνον ἀτελεῖς τῆς τοῦ ὄντος θέας ἀπέρχονται, καὶ ἀπελθοῦσαι τροφῇ δοξαστῇ χρῶνται.


Phdr. 249c.


Murdoch 2001.


Rep. 513b, 509b, 513d.


Williams 1999, 255-264.


Phdr. 247-48.


Rep. 546a.


Rep. 546c-d.


Rep. 546d.


Rep. 546d-547a; Iliad, v.211, editor’s reference. ἐκ δὲ τούτων ἄρχοντες οὐ πάνυ φυλακικοὶ καταστήσονται πρὸς τὸ δοκιμάζειν τὰ Ἡσιόδου τε καὶ τὰ παρ᾽ὑμῖν γένη, χρυσοῦν τε καὶ ἀργυροῦν καὶ χαλκοῦν καὶ σιδηροῦν: ὁμοῦ δὲ μιγέντος σιδηροῦ ἀργυρῷ καὶ χαλκοῦ χρυσῷ ἀνομοιότης ἐγγενήσεται καὶ ἀνωμαλία ἀνάρμοστος, γενόμενα, οὗ ἂν ἐγγένηται, ἀεὶ τίκτει πόλεμον καὶ ἔχθραν.


Rep. 547b-c: βιαζομένων δὲ καὶ ἀντιτεινόντων ἀλλήλοις, εἰς μέσον ὡμολόγησαν γῆν μὲν καὶ οἰκίας ἰδιώσασθαι, τοὺς δὲ πρὶν φυλαττομένους ὑπ᾽ αὐτῶν ὡς ἐλευθέρους φίλους τε καὶ τροφέας, δουλωσάμενοι τότε περιοίκους τε καὶ οἰκέτας ἔχοντες, αὐτοὶ πολέμου τε καὶ φυλακῆς αὐτῶν ἐπιμελεῖσθαι.


Rep. 552.


Rep. 556b-c.


Rep. 561.


Rep. 565.


Phdr. 254b, emphasis added.


Phdr. 254c-d, emphasis added.


Phdr. 256a.


Phdr. 256a-b.


Phdr. 256b-c: ἐὰν δὲ δὴ διαίτῃ φορτικωτέρᾳ τε καὶ ἀφιλοσόφῳ, φιλοτίμῳ δὲ χρήσωνται, τάχ᾽ ἄν που ἐν μέθαις τινι ἄλλῃ ἀμελείᾳ τὼ ἀκολάστω αὐτοῖν ὑποζυγίω λαβόντε τὰς ψυχὰς ἀφρούρους, συναγαγόντε εἰς ταὐτόν, τὴν ὑπὸ τῶν πολλῶν μακαριστὴν αἵρεσιν εἱλέσθην τε καὶ διεπραξάσθην: καὶ διαπραξαμένω τὸ λοιπὸν ἤδη χρῶνται μὲν αὐτῇ, σπανίᾳ δέ, ἅτε οὐ πάσῃ δεδογμένα τῇ διανοίᾳ πράττοντες.


Rep. 558d-e.


Rep. 559a-b: ἆρ᾽ οὖν οὐχ τοῦ φαγεῖν μέχρι ὑγιείας τε καὶ εὐεξίας καὶ αὐτοῦ σίτου τε καὶ ὄψου ἀναγκαῖος ἂν εἴη; … μέν γέ που τοῦ σίτου κατ᾽ ἀμφότερα ἀναγκαία, τε ὠφέλιμος τε μὴ παῦσαι ζῶντα δυνατή…. δὲ ὄψου, εἴ πῄ τινα ὠφελίαν πρὸς εὐεξίαν παρέχεται.


Rep. 559c.


Rep. 559c-d.


Rep. 554d-e.


Rep. 559b.


Rep. 488d: τοῦ δὲ ἀληθινοῦ κυβερνήτου πέρι μηδ᾽ ἐπαΐοντες, ὅτι ἀνάγκη αὐτῷ τὴν ἐπιμέλειαν ποιεῖσθαι ἐνιαυτοῦ καὶ ὡρῶν καὶ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ἄστρων καὶ πνευμάτων καὶ πάντων τῶν τῇ τέχνῃ προσηκόντων.


Rep. 414d-e.


Rep. 414c.


Rep. 414d.


Rep. 414a.


Rep. 414a-b.


Rep. 414c.


Rep. 415d.


Rep. 414c.


Rep. 547b-c.


Rawls 2001, 195.


Rawls 2001, 79.


Rawls 2001, 18-19.


Rawls 2001, 58-59.


Rep. 414d-e.

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